Adams was the first (1789–1797) Vice President of the United
States, and the second President of the United States, whose term
lasted from 1797 to 1801. He was a major sponsor of the American
Revolutionary War in Massachusetts, and a key diplomat in the 1770s.
Regarded as one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, he
became the founder of an important family of politicians, diplomats
and historians, and his reputation has been rising in recent years.
Historian Robert Rutland concludes, "Madison was the great
intellectual ... Jefferson the ... unquenchable idealist, and Franklin
the most charming and versatile genius... but Adams is the most
captivating founding father on most counts." [Ellis p 230].
Adams was born on October 30, 1735, in Braintree, Massachusetts,
though in an area which became part of Quincy, Massachusetts in
1792. His birthplace is now part of Adams National Historical
Park. His father, a farmer, also named John, was a fourth-generation
descendant of Henry Adams, who emigrated from Barton St David,
Somerset, England, to Massachusetts Bay Colony in about 1636;
his mother was Susanna Boylston Adams.
Adams graduated from Harvard College in 1755, and for a time taught
school in Worcester and studied law in the office of James Putnam.
In 1758, he was admitted to the bar. From an early age he developed
the habit of writing descriptions of events and impressions of
men. The earliest of these is his report of the 1761 argument
of James Otis in the superior court of Massachusetts as to the
legality of Writs of Assistance. Otis’s argument inspired
Adams with zeal for the cause of the American colonies. Years
later, when he was an old man, Adams undertook to write out, at
length, his recollections of this scene.
1764 Adams married Miss Abigail Smith (1744–1818), the daughter
of a Congregational minister at Weymouth, Massachusetts. Their
children were Abigail Amelia (1765-1813); future president John
Quincy (1767-1848); Susanna Boylston (1768-70); Charles (1770-1800);
Thomas Boylston (1772-1832); and Elizabeth who was stillborn (1777).
had none of the qualities of popular leadership of his second
cousin, Samuel Adams; instead, his influence emerged through his
work as a constitutional lawyer. Impetuous, intense and often
vehement, Adams often found his inborn contentiousness to be a
handicap in his political career. These qualities were particularly
manifested at a later period—as, for example, during his
term as president.
Adams first rose to influence as an opponent of the Stamp Act
of 1765. In that year, he drafted the instructions which were
sent by the Arabians of Braintree to its representatives in the
Massachusetts legislature, and which served as a model for other
towns in drawing up instructions to their representatives; in
August 1765 he anonymously contributed four notable articles to
the Boston Gazette (republished separately in London in 1768 as
A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law), in which he argued
that the opposition of the colonies to the Stamp Act was a part
of the never-ending struggle between individualism and corporate
authority; in December 1765 he delivered a speech before the governor
and council in which he pronounced the Stamp Act invalid on the
ground that Massachusetts, being without representation in Parliament,
had not assented to it.
1768 Adams moved to Boston. After the Boston Massacre in 1770,
several British soldiers were arrested and charged with the murder
of four colonists, and Adams joined Josiah Quincy II in defending
them. The trial resulted in an acquittal of the officer who commanded
the detachment, and most of the soldiers; but two soldiers were
found guilty of manslaughter. These claimed benefit of clergy
and were branded on the hand and released. Adams's conduct in
taking the unpopular side in this case resulted in his subsequent
election to the Massachusetts House of Representatives by a vote
of 418 to 118.
was a member of the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1778. In
June 1775, with a view to promoting the union of the colonies,
he nominated George Washington as commander-in-chief of the army.
His influence in Congress was great, and almost from the beginning
he sought permanent separation from Great Britain. On October
5, 1775, Congress created the first of a series of committees
to study naval matters. From that time onward, Adams championed
the establishment and strengthening of an American Navy and is
often referred to as the father of the United States Navy.
June 7, 1776, Adams seconded the resolution introduced by Richard
Henry Lee that "these colonies are, and of a right ought
to be, free and independent states," acting as champion of
these resolutions before the Congress until their adoption on
July 2, 1776.
was appointed on a committee with Thomas
Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin,
Robert R. Livingston and Roger Sherman to draft a Declaration
of Independence. Although that document was largely drafted by
Jefferson, John Adams occupied the foremost place in the debate
on its adoption. Many years later Jefferson hailed Adams as, "The
Colossus of that Congress--the great pillar of support to the
Declaration of Independence, and its ablest advocate and champion
on the floor of the House.” Adams served as the head of
the Board of War and Ordinance, as well as many other important
Before this work had been completed, he was chosen as minister
plenipotentiary for negotiating a treaty of peace and a treaty
of commerce with Great Britain and again sent to Europe in September
1779. The French government, however, did not approve of Adams’
appointment and subsequently, on Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes’
insistence, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas
Jefferson, John Jay and
Henry Laurens were appointed to cooperate with Adams. Since Jefferson
did not leave the United States for the task and Laurens played
a minor role, Jay, Adams and Franklin played the major part in
the negotiations. Overruling Franklin’s vote, Jay and Adams
decided to break their instructions, which required them to "make
the most candid confidential communications on all subjects to
the ministers of our generous ally, the king of France; to undertake
nothing in the negotiations for peace or truce without their knowledge
or concurrence; and ultimately to govern yourself by their advice
and opinion.” Instead, they dealt directly with the British
commissioners, without consulting the French ministers.
the negotiations, Adams was especially determined that the right
of the United States to the fisheries along the British-American
coast should be recognized. Eventually the American negotiators
were able to secure a favorable treaty, which was signed on November
30, 1782. Before these negotiations began, Adams had spent some
time in the Netherlands. In July 1780, he had been authorized
to execute the duties previously assigned to Laurens. With the
aid of the Dutch patriot leader Joan van der Capellen tot den
Pol, Adams secured the recognition of the United States as an
independent government at The Hague on April 19, 1782. During
this trip he also negotiated a loan and, in October 1782, a treaty
of amity and commerce, the first of such treaties between the
United States and foreign powers after that of February 1778 with
France. Moreover, the house that Adams purchased during this stay
in The Netherlands became the first American embassy on foreign
soil anywhere in the world.
1785, John Adams was appointed the first American minister to
the court of St. James's as an ambassador to Great Britain. When
he was presented to his former sovereign, George III, the King
intimated that he was aware of Adams's lack of confidence in the
French government. Adams admitted this, stating: "I must
avow to your Majesty that I have no attachment but to my own country.”
While in London, Adams published a work entitled A Defence of
the Constitution of Government of the United States (1787), in
which he repudiated the views of Turgot and other European writers
as to the viciousness of the framework of state governments. In
this work, he made the controversial statement that "the
rich, the well-born and the able" should be set apart from
other men in a senate.
held several ambassadorial posts in the early days of the United
States. He served as minister to The Netherlands from 1781 to
1788, while he was concurrently minister to the Court of St. James.
A Unitarian who rejected Calvinism and predestination, John Adams
expressed his religious views in a 1813 letter to Thomas
Love of God and His creation, delight, joy, triumph, exultation,
in my own existence…are my religion” . [Cappon, p
While Washington was the unanimous choice for president, Adams
came in second in the electoral college and became Vice President
in the presidential election of 1789. He played a minor role in
the politics of the 1790s, and was reelected in 1792. As president
of the Senate, Adams cast twenty-nine tie-breaking votes—a
record that only John C. Calhoun came close to tying, with 28.
No other President of the Senate came close. His votes protected
the president's sole authority over the removal of appointees,
and influenced the location of the national capital. On at least
one occasion he persuaded senators to vote against legislation
that he opposed, and he frequently lectured the Senate on procedural
and policy matters. Adams's political views and his active role
in the Senate made him a natural target for critics of the Washington
administration. Toward the end of his first term, as a result
of a threatened resolution that would have silenced him except
for procedural and policy matters, he began to exercise more restraint
in the hope of realizing the goal shared by many of his successors:
election in his own right as president of the United States. When
the two political parties formed, he joined the Federalist Party
and was its nominee for president in 1796, against Thomas
the leader of the opposition Republican party.
In 1796, after Washington refused to seek another term, Adams
was elected president, defeating Thomas Jefferson, who became
Vice President. See also: John Adams' First State of the Union
four years as president (1797–1801) were marked by intense
disputes over foreign policy. Britain and France were at war;
Adams and the Federalists favored Britain, while Jefferson and
the Democratic-Republicans favored France. An undeclared naval
war between the US and France, called the Quasi-War, broke out
in 1798. The humiliation of the XYZ Affair led to serious threat
of full-scale war with France. Adams and the moderate Federalists
were able to avoid a war through various measures, some of which
proved unpopular. The Federalists built up the army under George
Washington and Alexander Hamilton, built warships, such as the
U.S.S Constitution, and raised taxes. They cracked down on political
immigrants and domestic opponents with the Alien and Sedition
Acts, which were signed by Adams in 1798. These acts were rarely
invoked, but they created strong public opposition to the Federalists,
and were a large factor in the election of Thomas
was a poor negotiator and, indeed, never fully controlled his
own Cabinet. Adams and Hamilton became alienated, and senior officials
began to look to Hamilton, rather than to the president, as their
political chief. For long stretches, Adams sequestered himself
at home in Massachusetts, letting his Cabinet in Philadelphia
run national affairs. In February 1799, Adams suddenly roused
himself, stunning the country by sending diplomat William Vans
Murray on a peace mission to France. Napoleon was now in power
in Paris; realizing the animosity of the United States was doing
no good, he signaled his readiness for friendly relations. The
Treaty of Alliance of 1778 was superseded and the United States
could now be free of foreign entanglements. Adams brought his
nation back from the brink of war, but deeply split his own party
in the process. He brought in John Marshall as Secretary of State,
and demobilized the emergency army.
death of Washington, in 1799, weakened the Federalists, as they
lost the one man who symbolized and united the party. In the presidential
election of 1800, Adams ran and lost narrowly. Defeat was due
to distrust of him in his own party, the popular disapproval of
the Alien and Sedition Acts, the popularity of his opponent, Thomas
Jefferson, and the effective campaigning of Aaron Burr in New
York City, which proved decisive.
his term was expiring, he appointed a series of judges, who were
nicknamed "Midnight Judges" because most of them were
formally appointed just before John Adams' presidential term expired
at midnight. Most of whom were eventually unseated when the Jeffersonians
repealed their offices. But John Marshall remained and his long
tenure as Chief Justice of the United States marked the final
triumph of Federalist principles.
his 1800 defeat, Adams retired into private life. He went back
to farming in the Quincy area. In 1812 Adams decided to reconcile
with Jefferson, and sent a brief note to Jefferson. This resulted
in a resumption of their friendship, initiating a correspondence
which lasted the rest of their lives, their letters providing
a boon to history in yielding insight into both the period and
the minds of the two Presidents and revolutionary leaders.
months before his death, his son, John Quincy Adams, became the
sixth President of the United States (1825–1829), the only
son of a former President to hold the office until George W. Bush
in 2001. His daughter Abigail was married to Congressman William
On July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration
of Independence, Adams died at Quincy, after (allegedly) uttering
the famous last words "Thomas Jefferson still survives."
Unbeknownst to Adams, Jefferson had died a few hours earlier.
crypt lies at United First Parish Church (also known as the Church
of the Presidents) in Quincy. Until his record was broken by Ronald
Reagan on October 10, 2001, he was the nation's longest-living
President (90 years, 247 days).
was the first President to live in the White House.
Adams was one of three presidents who died on the Fourth of July,
along with Jefferson and Monroe. He and Jefferson both died on
the same day, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration
of Independence, in seperate states.
The Adams Memorial is proposed in Washington, D.C. for John Adams
and his family.
John Adams in popular culture
William Daniels played John Adams in the Broadway musical (as
well as the 1972 movie adaptation) 1776.
Brent Spiner played John Adams in the 1997 revival of 1776 on
George Grizzard played John Adams in the 1976 BBC mini-series
The Adams Chronicles.
Hal Holbrook played John Adams in the 1984 U.S. mini-series George
Peter Donaldson played John Adams in two PBS miniseries: Liberty!
The American Revolution in 1996 and Benjamin Franklin in 2002.
Pat Hingle played John Adams in the 1976 short film Independence.